Couple builds full life through nearly 60 years of marriage

by Laura Bednar

In celebration of the upcoming Valentine’s Day, Independence Today is honoring long-married couples with the story of Don and Theresa Akuszewski, who have been married for 59 years.

Through nearly six decades of marriage, Don and Theresa Akuszewski said they have maintained their relationship by simply “remembering why you got married.”

Don and Theresa’s mothers were friends and the couple met while Theresa’s family was visiting Don’s home in Independence. She recalled seeing Don working on a car in the garage, covered in grease. The two were married in 1964; both were 20 years old.

“Our mothers had to sign for us because [legally] you had to be 21 to get married,” said Theresa.

After marrying, they lived in an apartment in Newburgh Heights for four years. Early in their marriage, Don was a heavy sleeper and Theresa jokingly said she thought about asking the American Legion across the street to shoot its cannon on the front lawn as a wake up call.

Don worked at The U.S. Steel mill for 20 years before it closed. Don was disappointed that he wasn’t able to earn a gold watch for making it to 25 years, so Theresa gifted him a watch for their 25th anniversary with an inscription thanking him for 20 years of service – a gift Don still wears today. During his time with the mill, there was one year where he worked a 12-hour day every one of the 365 days.

The pair moved to a home in Garfield Heights for three years before returning to Don’s hometown of Independence, where they have lived in their Dora Boulevard home for 52 years. Theresa said they moved in December 1972 and maneuvered through two feet of snow to get their belongings into the home.

Said Don, “Neighbors said we were too young to live in Independence.” To which he replied that his family had been in the city since the 1940s. The couple’s daughter, Donna, now lives in the home Don’s parents built in 1949. Their son, Michael, also remains in the city and like his father and sister, is an Independence High School graduate.

Theresa grew up in Slavic Village and attended St. Stanislaus School. She was a homemaker, raising the children at home and getting an outside job when they got older. “Being a homemaker means you are never without work,” she said.

She worked as a drug technician for stores like Drug Mart and later was a receptionist at the former Zep Manufacturing. Her love of cooking and baking led her to work part-time at Seven Hills Tavern, where her specials were potato pancakes, cabbage and noodles and hot dipping sauce for shrimp. During St. Patrick’s Day, she made corned beef sandwiches and she recalled almost a dozen of her family members coming to the tavern to celebrate.

Being a Polish couple, Don and Theresa engaged in traditions like having fish on Christmas Eve and enjoying Oplatki wafer with family and sharing personal messages as they wished each other Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. “Those messages were better than presents,” said Theresa.

Family vacations were moments the couple remembered vividly, traveling with their children to New England states, Rhode Island and Nashville, Tennessee.

Though there were times in their marriage the couple had to “watch their pennies,” Theresa said the family had what it needed: food and a roof over their heads. She added that having a house in Independence as a young family was an accomplishment in itself.

It was when Don was clearing the snow on their driveway with a tractor that someone from the city saw him and asked if he would plow senior driveways. He accepted the task and was hired by the city soon after. He worked in the service department as a mechanic working on police and fire vehicles.

Don has worked on cars his whole life, spending a couple years fixing people’s vehicles out of his garage. He gained business by word of mouth and some of his clients came from visitors at the Seven Hills Tavern. Over the years, he has restored and sold 34 cars, and is currently restoring a 1948 Chevy hot rod.

The Akuszewski’s children both enjoy cars. Michael is a fan of NASCAR and Donna takes Don to drag races with cars from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s for Father’s Day. Don recalled letting his son drive a 1964 hot rod to school when he graduated. Theresa said both children found success in their fields and praised the Cuyahoga Valley Career Center for the courses they offered them.

Nowadays, the Akuszewskis continue to take care of their almost one acre of land on Dora, where Don does all the yard work and keeps up with the nearly 200 trees on the property. The couple is also active with the Senior Citizens of Independence and Theresa was the president of the city’s former homemakers club.

When asked what advice the pair have for newly married couples, Don said, “Think about why you got married,” adding, with a smile, that the key to a long-lasting marriage is to “keep your wife happy.”

“Be friends first and honor and respect each other’s being,” offered Theresa. “That goes a long way to happy unity.” ∞

Theresa and Don Akuszewski have been married for 59 years and lived in Independence for 52 years. Photo by Laura Bednar.

On our cover (photo): Theresa and Don Akuszewski were married in 1964, both were 20 years old. Theresa said their wedding photo was the cleanest she ever saw Don’s hands as he previously worked in the steel mill and has restored cars in his spare time. Photo submitted.